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Energy in Canada

Transitioning a Workforce

Within the next five years, between 25 and 30 per cent of Canadians employed in the electricity sector, which includes generation, transmission and distribution, will be eligible for retirement. And it isn’t just the electricity industry’s human elements that are aging: its transmission lines are also slated for between $150 billion and $220 billion in upgrades over the next 20 years. As employees age and technology evolves, the industry is looking for new ways to refresh the human element responsible for the infrastructure of our electricity generation, transmission and distribution.

Canada’s Electricity Sector Council was founded in 2005 in response to a 2004 human resources study (983 KB PDF) by the Canadian Electricity Association and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC). The study, Keeping the Future Bright, found that a retiring workforce and evolving electricity technology were imminent challenges that needed to be met in order to maintain Canada’s electricity infrastructure.

Driven by two distinct factors — Canadians’ increasing energy use, and the ongoing replacement of aging infrastructure — generation, transmission and distribution have all increased their demand for employees, according to Tom Goldie, the Electricity Sector Council’s chair.

“In terms of staff growth, I’d say all those areas are growing rapidly,” he said, noting that Ontario’s Hydro One is hiring an average 80 new university grads per year to make up for its shortfall, which is typical across the industry.

The council is also looking at foreign worker credentials as a way of quickly bringing in more employees, as well as recognizing existing foreign professionals. But meeting the increased demands on Canada’s electricity sector doesn’t just require more employees; there is also a pronounced knowledge gap to be filled.

“To go back 15 or 20 years, across the industry there was a view that you should cut costs, do more with less,” said Goldie. “So there was a period going on where there was no hiring. So, 20 years later, you have that hole in the organization.”

One of the council’s main tasks, then, is capturing the knowledge of its senior employees without the benefit of mid-level employees already in a state of transition. To meet this demand, the council has taken a number of steps, engaging post-secondary institutions and employing information technology to catalogue employees’ existing knowledge.

“We’re using all the traditional ways of being able to [transfer knowledge], but we’re also trying to use newer technologies as well,” said Goldie. “We’re trying to accumulate the knowledge a lot more than we had in the past, and centralize it within systems that give people access. Our physical body of knowledge, in terms of backgrounds and reports, is much stronger than it’s ever been.”

One of the council’s primary tools in consolidating this knowledge has been Microsoft’s SharePoint, which allows experts in the field to share new training programs with a wider industry audience. The program provides a public forum for knowledge that would otherwise remain anecdotal or, worse, be lost entirely when employees retire. And while the industry is trying to capture the knowledge of its past, it is also being forced to adapt existing programs for the future.

Many current energy technologies, such as smart grids, didn’t exist when the industry’s senior employees began their careers. Wind and solar generation, as well as the increasing use of smart grid technologies, have contributed to an increasingly complex field. According to Goldie, the only major contraction can be seen in coal-related positions in Ontario, which intends to retire all its coal-fired generation by 2014. In areas where renewable power is already a large part of the generation mix, however, such as Quebec, the nature of available positions is remaining relatively stable. Unconventional renewable sources like wind and solar, meanwhile, are generating new positions, as are smart grid technologies, which are moving information technology from the office into the field.

“We’re learning as we go,” said Goldie, “Community colleges have been pretty good on both renewable technology and smart grid and metering, working with industry to get those [skills] in place. Right now there isn’t a huge body of knowledge to pass on, though it’s growing.”

Some of the industry’s newest skill sets are largely combinations of existing ones. Building and maintaining wind turbines, for example, draws on professional backgrounds in mechanical engineering and electricity, as well as those that already require work at heights or in confined spaces. Successful curriculums designed to address the electricity industry’s future needs, then, need a range of schools’ existing strengths.

Not all post-secondary schools are able to adapt so quickly, however. Goldie attributes a lack of available power engineers, for example, to structural changes in universities that are decades old.

“Universities closed or significantly contracted their power engineering programs; they put their resources elsewhere,” explained Goldie. “But now that we need power engineers, we can’t simply go to them.” Structural changes are taking place through the electricity industry, especially as new technologies change fundamental aspects of electricity generation. For example, the next generation of electricity employees will be maintaining a grid where microgeneration offers an inverted model of generation and transmission, led by programs like Ontario’s microFIT.

“Historically, generation has come from large plants and then been transmitted, and the system has been built specifically not to allow small generation to be transmitted,” explained Goldie. “Now we’re saying we want to literally reverse that flow and allow local generation through [feed-in tariff] programs, which means we’re going to have to have all new engineering approaches.”

Meeting these new challenges will shape the character of the industry’s employment for years to come, which is why the Electricity Sector Council continues to track its efforts. The council is currently in the process of conducting its 2011 Labour Market Information program, a recurring study whose last report, Powering Up the Future, was released in 2008. That study confirmed the need for ongoing recruitment and retention programs, particularly recruitment that targeted neglected labour markets, and recommended a series of strategies designed to mobilize the industry. These strategies included identifying role models and modifying recruitment programs to target underrepresented groups.

With demand for electricity continuing to increase, and aging infrastructure requiring billions in upgrades, the electricity industry will need all the help it can get. Aging or not, the industry shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

“I would round it to the last five years,” said Goldie of the changes currently shaping the industry. “Smart metering and smart grids have been talked about for a number of years, and it’s one of those things that continues to pick up speed as we go. It’s not a steady plane: that curve is starting to get fairly steep.”

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